Cabin Fever: Landscape, Individualism and Nationalism in Europe and America
Kde domov muj, kde domov muj
(Where is my home, where is my home)
- Beginning stanza of Czech national anthem
And the rockets red flare,
The bombs bursting in air,
Gave proof through the night
That our flag was still there
- American national anthem
My grandfather was born less than ten miles from where he lives today, my grandmother less than ten miles in the other direction. For most of their lives, all they knew was their very immediate and immanent surrounding environment. It is easy to think then that their entire lives would be informed by a very narrow point of view, that of the provincial and tied necessarily to their specific frame of reference. They did travel out however. My grandfather was a private taxi driver, a job that took him all across the republic, on vacations both of them took trips to the other Soviet controlled states where travel was permitted, and when the curtain was lifted they went to Western Europe and eventually visited America. Most of this happened in the latter part of their lives. They are both devout Czechs, but more so, they are even more devout Ceskobroďáks. Ceský Brod is the town they both live and where I was born. Their families lived and died in these lands that are now dominated by two huge 300 meters tall radio towers that can be seen from miles away in every direction. One of my grandfather’s friends said once that if they ever dismantled them he would die. At the very least he would not be able to find his way back home. So much are they part of the landscape now that to see it without them would be akin to seeing Paris without the Eiffel tower. The identity of the landscape thus rests on the contours and shapes not just of the land itself but the objects and buildings we create in them, no matter if they are beautiful or ugly, large or small, new or old.
The radio towers were built in 1975, a time of Normalization and heavy Communism, just a few years before I was born. They had a specific function. They were transmitting the official radio programming of the state as propaganda to the whole region and as far as the signal could reach. Below them in a ravine stood a second pair of much smaller towers maybe 100 meters tall. These were the interrupters. They were built much earlier in the 1930s and near them was a military base. These were refashioned during the height of the Cold War to jam the signals of the radio, the other official propaganda, coming from the West, Voice of America and Radio Free Europe. These were demolished in 2004. Nobody cared. Today the tall towers transmit official propaganda of Capitalism, pop stations, talk shows and the rest. There is no need to jam the signals coming from the radical left.
About five to ten miles to the north of the radio towers sits a rather unremarkable memorial or cenotaph to the thousands killed in the last of the major losing battles of the Hussite Wars (1419-1434), the Battle of Lipany (May 30,1434). It sits at the top of a small hill overlooking the fields of wheat and turnips. It looks vaguely phallic. To be really coarse, it actually resembles a butt plug but that is neither here nor there. We made frequent trips there when I was still a child, not necessarily to see the monument, but because on clear days one can see from the top of this hill all the way to the mountain ranges bordering Poland some 80 miles away. In those mountains my family spent much time together at a cabin (chalupa) and this is where most of my childhood memories were formed and where my closeness to all things natural were established. Today I feel the urge to make the short trip as a sort of pilgrimage to the monument on the hill top every time I visit my hometown. No matter how cliché or ridiculous the idea might be, the landscape beckons and when I see the slowly undulating contours of the rolling hills and the forests around my hometown, the fields dotted by small villages and Prague only 30 minutes to the east, I feel I am at home. But quite apart from nostalgia or sentimental longing, these emotions are not exactly what they seem. I feel very similar emotions for example when I drive into Asheville, my other home, not one I was born but one I adopted and one in which landscape and place play a no less important part. The Czech geologist and philosopher Václav Cílek described home as a place “to which we return, and which we leave so that we may keep returning.” 1 In this sense, home could be anywhere and everywhere, but it is there where we feel we could come back to over and over again. To continue this line of thought, I know very well the pitfalls of nostalgic thought and this is why I am going to deal with this subject later in the text. I claim that nostalgia is an emotion we have not yet begun to understand despite the known literature and argument made against it. My main point here is that in as much as we are in control of our thoughts, actions and emotions (we are not, but this is a subject to be tackled by psychoanalysts not artists), our belief in rationality is almost always superseded by forces external to ourselves, so that a sense of home, place, nostalgia, longing and nationalist pride are almost always linked to landscape, ours either from birth or by adoption. I do not mean ‘ours’ in the capitalist sense of possessing. In some sense I would like to stay away from the left-right political argument entirely because I feel this topic is relevant to both and both have done good and evil as a result of projecting ideological imprints onto them.
The primordial myth of Czech lands begins with the Forefather Cech arriving with his band of nomadic Slavs at a mountain called Ríp whose name root is found in the word beet (Rípa). The mountain itself looks like the end of a beet sticking out the earth. It is rounded and fairly small. Here, so the legend goes, Cech saw this hill, climbed it, saw the surrounding landscape and decided to stay. The land that he saw and occupied, where he lived and died, came to be called Czech thereafter. No matter what the reality behind the myth, the hill forms probably the greatest natural landmark in Czech Republic. One cannot imagine one without the other. Similarly one cannot imagine Nepal without the Himalayas, Armenia without Mt. Ararat or Egypt without its man-made mountains, the pyramids. One is almost tempted to be quick and argue that all nostalgia, longing and nationalism is therefore inherently tied to landscape because most people are foolishly deceived by their most base assumptions and emotions that tie them to the place of their birth. Why this is not so I will explain shortly, but before I do so, I want to relate another anecdote that I feel may act as a qualified example against this reductionist argument.
I was born in Czechoslovakia in 1981. In 1992 the country split in two, into Czech Republic and Slovakia, each country apparently deciding on their separate national identities which were similar but not too similar. Landscape or land disputes had nothing to do with it (as far as I am able to discern). In 1994 I emigrated to the USA. It took me about ten years to develop a true feeling of home when my wife and I finally moved together to the mountains of North Carolina. It took another ten years and trip to the West that for the first time made me feel like an American. I became a citizen in 2005 but until then America seemed like an abstraction to me. It was everywhere and nowhere for me. Countless people went in search for it in the 1960s and novelists, poets and filmmakers alike sought to find it. For me America was not in the people but in the landscape. As horrendously reactionary and biased this nation may seem or have seemed to me when I experienced it, I could not shake the feeling. It was as if when the landscape opened up past the Texas panhandle that I first understood the implication of the westward migration of the homesteaders with the ravaging of the people already there and the exploitation of the land they unwittingly conquered. This did not matter to me because at this time I knew that the second, American side of me was finally awake. I had been to the west coast years before, but I arrived by plane and seeing the country below, displayed as an abstract painting is not the same as seeing it up close and personal, rushing past the windows of the car, the difference is in feeling the heat and dryness of the desert, the coolness of the Pacific, seeing the endless vistas of New Mexico and Arizona.
There is of course a kind of silliness to the notion that a part of Earth or landscape can belong to someone, a state, or individual. Private property as such is Capitalism at its purest and the excess of property signifies the excess of Capitalism. When one drives along American roads and highways one is immanently following miles and miles of seemingly endless stretches of barbed wire, parceling out huge swaths of land, making most of it inaccessible. This private excess augments the public experience, for who believes oneself to be tied to the land is necessarily tied to their own property, not a land shared by everyone. In this sense the Grand Canyon, though meant for public use and enjoyment is actually private land meant to signify the greatness of the United States, when of course America had nothing to do with its creation It uses the identification with the Grand Canyon for pure nationalistic purposes, a deployment of religious determinism and providence because in its eyes only the righteous could inherit this splendor created by ‘God himself.’ One has to therefore suppose that the main difference in how the Grand Canyon was thought of by the native civilization and the intruding white populace is that the latter took possession of it where the former venerated its grandeur as unpossessable, too great to fathom on purely human scale. Nationalist pride subjugates the landscape to the service of identity and ideology which is almost always signified by planting a flag within it, either on its farthest known edges, highest peaks or in place of other people’s own insignia or simply by renaming it.
The Cabin in Landscape
In 1818 Caspar David Friedrich painted his ‘Wanderer Above a Sea of Fog,’ an iconic painting that would stand as a symbol for German Romanticism and the German state of the 19th century. Similarly Bierstadt’s and Fredericks Church’s paintings of the same century would function as backdrops to American westward expansion, following the train tracks into new and ‘undiscovered’ territories. Of course in Europe, what followed German Romanticism was also a century of expansionism, imperialism and war, where new lands were occupied by similarly ‘uncivilized’ peoples (Slavs, gypsies, etc) that stood in the way of progress, like the Indians that stood in the way of Capitalism in America. What was already there wasn’t really a consideration as what was the possibility of exploiting it. The 19th Century of American expansion was in essence another version of Romantic idealism tied to landscape and individual determination fueled by the illusion of wealth and the fantasmic core of myth created in the wake of the destruction that followed. This was the myth of the Indian as noble savage, the myth of the cowboy riding his horse through the prairie, the myth of the homesteader building a better life for himself in a new faraway land, there were Paul Bunyon and Daniel Boone. In Europe, myths were necessarily tied to the old pantheon of gods and goddesses, nature and landscape and it would appear that with the movement of Europeans to America at this time a crossover in this type of Romantic idealism can be discerned. So much so that there is very little difference between the social and philosophical underpinning of something like Martin Heidegger’s hut and Henry David Thoreau’s and Ted Kaczinski’s cabins. Three separate worlds connected at the kernel of their own respective ideologies. Heidegger, the bourgeois nationalist, whose Building Dwelling Thinking2 gives credence to his own version of a life sustained on the edge of society, always returning to it, but ultimately distant, to his hut as an extension of himself, a persona that must weather the same type of natural calamity brought on by nature. Ultimately there is the problematic core of Nazi ideology that connected the individual to the masses and nature3 all rolled into one and that was emblematically underscored by Heidegger’s own philosophy tied to place, specifically his hut.4 At the core of Nazi ideology we have therefore a twofold nature of the individual, he must in essence be both and neither at once, depending on the situation that calls for it. The good Nazi must be part of a collective, carrying out orders, following the rules, enjoy the taste of a homogeneous culture, read thematic books and if the situation calls for it act ruthlessly to sustain the Nazi state and accept collective blame for any atrocities carried out by it. But the good Nazi must also be an individualist, he must not fall in with the crowd and must be able to lead when the time calls for it, he must be able to survive should the state perish. We can strip this specific Nazi approach of its very overt ‘Nazi-like’ overtones if we only think of all the ways that men and women have historically been called upon by the state or the church to respond to some higher calling. There is nothing wrong in a higher calling as such, what we find however is that we cannot respond to such a call without clearly designated boundaries, the line where good ends and evil begins. Such a line does not exist, just as there is no line that one crosses between the macrocosmic and the microcosmic. We find that we are either in one or the other with a transitional period between which we cannot discern through the present, only historically and with hindsight do we realize that such a separation exists. The nationalistic question is therefore interesting to bring up at this point because it is the notion of the ‘homeland’, ‘fatherland’ or ‘motherland’ that we live and die for without a recognition of the line that one crosses, standing either on the good or the evil side of a particular ideology connected with these concepts.5
“Heinrich Himmler made this point clear in his infamous statement that the holocaust is one of the most glorious chapters of a German history which, unfortunately, will have to remain unwritten; the underlying notion of this statement is that one demonstrates one’s true devotion to one’s Fatherland not simply by doing noble things for it (by sacrificing one’s life for it, etc.), but by being ready to accomplish horrible deeds for it when the necessity arises: that is, by giving preference to the demands of the Fatherland over petty concerns about personal integrity and honesty – the true hero is the one who is ready to dirty his hands for the noble Cause.” 6
What we find in Thoreau is the same kernel of thought channeled through the radical left ideology that ultimately has nothing in common with Nazism as such. Thoreau’s specific goal for writing “Walden” was to mobilize the ecological and back to the earth movement at a time when these did not exist. It would take many decades of just this type of sentiment to develop, but ultimately to be perverted into the patchwork of National Parks and Indian Reservations we have today, a Balkanization process that Thoreau’s idealism about nature helped realize. At the very edge of just this same ideology lies the world of the survivalist and of Ted Kaczynski. While writing his “Industrial Society and Its Future”, he was living in a cabin based on Thoreau’s Walden Pond cabin which he, like Thoreau, built himself. “Industrial Society” would become his manifesto, and via various channels, would also become the manifesto of the desert and forest people of the American West who are today waiting out society’s self-destruction in virtual self-imposed exile and isolation. Kaczynski’s thought deploys a type of Anarchistic philosophy coupled with the orthodoxy of right-wing hatred of the state rooted in Libertarianism. Of course in some respect Anarchism and Libertarianism are very much related, but in their very orientation are absolutely opposites. Modern cinema exploits the themes of just such romanticism with equal verve that Kaczynski used when sending his mailer bombs to politicians. Black Metal musicians utilize everything from Nietzschean and Heideggerian philosophy to Romantic imagery to deploy their message be it from de-Christianization, ethnic cleansing, anti-state and anti-semitic sentiment on the side of the radical-right7 to Anarcho-paganism, Anarcho-primitivism, revival of back to the earth idealism, environmentalism, ecology on the side of the radical-left. Modern Romanticism in film and music, in religion and politics is therefore rooted in all of the above. The most recent development and spread of ‘tiny houses’ throughout America is in a way the outcome of the sentiment of disaffection with the prevailing ideology among the middle class and is directly related to Thoreau’s idea of humans in nature. Tiny houses force their inhabitants to scale down, to reduce the amount of their possessions and to get by with less. This is an enviable idea only if one realizes that this is in essence yet another possible venue through which modern capital can and will exploit those who buy into it. The tiny house is a way to scale down what one owns by proportionally raising the prices for them so that a tiny house, when it becomes a highly sought commodity, will command a much higher price than its much larger single home counterpart. Let’s also not forget that the tiny house is already at a point where the original idea of a house built by its owner is supplanted by a whole array of intermediaries making the prices climb from the very outset. Let’s also hope that this does not happen.
The tiny house did begin with a few enthusiasts, those that actually built them with their own hands, over the span of a few months or years, giving credence to the go-it-alone American ideology. The aestheticization of this form of building was made into yet another ‘life style’ that could be developed into a marketing strategy. Today an array of architects, builders and designers are hard at work systematizing the production of these homes so they come as ready-mades, able to be plugged into the landscape like so many of the products we consume daily, the tiny house is no more than a toy for those that want to play with a serious idea. The tiny house promises that one’s life style will not necessarily suffer by moving into it, rather it will get enhanced, in the same way that the back to earth life style was thought as the only sensible thing to do in light of modern civilized development. Many people that went the way of establishing their paradisiacal existences on farms, ranches and homesteads in order to live off the land, came quickly to the realization of how hard such a life really is, they’re tired and work very hard for very little pay back. The tiny house life style that is so much in vogue these days seems to hinge on typically middle class predispositions, relatively high-paying white collar jobs that one can do from home, proximity to all the amenities of civilization and safety. It is a new reality filled with lots of aspiring ‘Thoreaus’ that can only be described as post-Thoreauan, to add to the mix of ‘postness’ that exists today.8
The interpellation of the cabin and the individual follows a simple path and establishes a form of its own truth. The cabin is a form of ideology that takes the shape of a building. In Europe, the cabin or cottage is usually associated with the family. It is a communal space, a space of sharing. Large families often bought second homes together, all sharing in the costs and the labor that went into their up keep. They are places where the family members are able to get away for the weekend, for vacations, to invite friends, host large gatherings and so on. They are also places where individuals come to get away from the family, this was certainly true of Heidegger and his hut. He had frequent guests and one of the four rooms of his relatively small hut had several beds in it while the beds reserved for Heidegger and his wife was in the kitchen nearer the stove as source of heat. More often than not, Heidegger took off for the hut on his own.9 He spent many times there in solitude, a philosophical paradise built from wood and stone, a quintessential Zarathustran cave with modern parameters and overtones. Despite its relatively Spartan design and modest size, the hut was indeed the work of a middle-class city dweller, Heidegger himself who designed it together with his wife Elfride.10 It was not built by him but rather built for him and had the basic necessities close at hand, a well a few feet away from the building, a stove for cooking, utensils, chairs and tables, beds and above all his study with books and an easy chair for sitting and thinking. The line between comfort and discomfort were taken into consideration. In Europe at this time and probably well into the 1980s most family cabins and cottages had very similar amenities and many retain the hand pump for getting water to this day. This is relative to the wealth of their owners. Second homes and cabins in the country do not offer the same types of amenities because of the underlying philosophy of the people that go to them. It may not be necessary to have a flushable toilet if one spends only a weekend there. One may collect rain water in a barrel during the week when one is in the city going to work because this amount of water is enough for a couple of days. This is of course much more difficult at one’s primary residence where dependence on rain water is predicated on the reliance on natural cycles of precipitation. If it does not rain, one must conserve or do without water. It is therefore much easier to live a life in the city connected to the grid of water and electricity and then travel out to the country cottage and write about the virtues of authentic life experience without water and electricity.11 This of course does not negate or nullify Heidegger’s actual philosophy, it only qualifies it through a specific filter, much in the same way that his Nazi past qualifies his later output. It is much too easy to disqualify a whole ouvre based on small isolated parts. It is therefore much too easy to dismiss all of Heidegger’s philosophy as the work of an anti-Semite or racist as much as it is much too easy to dismiss Kaczynski as a lunatic homegrown terrorist with nothing important to say about the world, civilization or philosophy. Genius is frequently a site for imbalance in the psyche and emotional make up. This is of course never a sufficient excuse for the real damage caused by this imbalance in action.
Heidegger developed a relationship with his hut through which we can understand him and his philosophy of dwelling. This philosophy was developed in a short essay Building Dwelling Thinking and it forms the backbone of his earlier ideas of Being or Dasein. Being-in-the-world, or Dasein, meant to belong to a space and to everything else surrounding it.12 In this sense Heidegger’s hut is also a Being, placed into a space surrounded by its landscape. This mythical interpellation of building and being is also at the heart of nationalistic sentiment that takes shape when people and places are inherently tied to their places of origin. Landscape as homeland or simply land is what armies fight for and is at the heart of most if not all disputes over national borders. Architecture mobilizes nationalistic sentiment by picking through the debris of ideology and lifting only those pieces that form a complete picture, this is why Heiddegger never wrote about his home in Freiburg, even though he spent the majority of his time there only going up to the hut on weekends and whenever he had free time.13 His home in Freiburg simply did not meet the standards of his idea of Dasein. Gaston Bachelard described this predicament poetically when he wrote that the city is “where houses are no longer set in natural surroundings, the relationship between house and space becomes an artificial one. Everything about it is mechanical and, on every side, intimate living flees. ‘The streets are like pipes into which men are sucked up.’”14 It is therefore not so strange that Heidegger did not write of the city. “They have no roots and, what is quite unthinkable for a dreamer of houses, sky-scrapers have no cellars.” “Elevators do away with the heroism of stair climbing so that there is no longer any virtue in living up near the sky. Home has become mere horizontality.”15
Heidegger’s relationship to his cabin must have been formed on the same type of Romantic sentiment one feels for landscape, the sublime, the gigantic and that which is in a way out of reach. Heidegger believed in the natural forces as a quasi-pagan and at the hut he would fully let himself go and subject himself to the mercy of nature as much as his relatively safe middle-class bourgeois lifestyle would allow. He would walk through the forests surrounding his hut every chance he got, thinking about thinking and particularly about his idea of Being.16 Thoreau had a similar penchant for walking as he would take four hour walks around his cabin and later in life no matter what.17 It was this direct contact with nature and the divinities that formed Heidegger’s idea of authentic experience and only the hut could afford this experience because it was far enough from civilization and steeped in the history of the landscape where it was built. The naming of landscape matters here as much as the location. Heidegger’s hut lies in the Black Forest of southern Germany in a region called Todtnau. The village below the hut is called Todtnauberg. ‘Tot’ is the German word for ‘dead’ and Todtnauberg is derived from the root of ‘tot’ and ‘berg’, the word for mountain, ‘mountain of death.’18 The mere fact that this ‘dead’ or ‘death’ is found in the Black Forest is the only appropriate way to think of Heidegger’s philosophy and his quite overemphasized relationship with Nazism, the darkest of the dark European history. It is this relative darkness that in some sense colors Heidegger’s philosophy of nature and the divinities. In this part of the Black Forest the weather is quite changeable, storms come and go, rain, sleet, and snow pass by in succession and the summer months are short. Heidegger’s existential darkness finds much support in this type of landscape. Considering names, it is also quite interesting that Ted Kaczynski’s cabin was located in the Scapegoat Wilderness of Montana.19
There was and is something truly modern about Thoreau and quite regressively post-modern about Kaczynski. This something was contained in their respective dwellings and their end use, the cabins each built for himself. Thoreau’s modernism shows up as a radical break from what is entirely given by the culture in which he lived. Kaczynski’s post-modernism is deployed in his treatment of his own radical break with culture because through it he references it as a means to draw attention to itself, in other words, the act of terrorism is in itself a post-modern act because it does not leave the initial break as is, it is a loop of internal commentary, “I do this because…” or “only after you publish my book I will…” it is a constant referential loop that comments endlessly on itself. Thoreau’s cabin served as the blueprint for Kaczynski’s own and they are virtually the same in size and layout. And yet when compared through the lens of public opinion we get a glimpse not of the individuals themselves but the individuals as perceived by others.
%“During the lead up to the court case, Kaczynski’s cabin was depicted as evidence of his “insanity,” which was assumed to account for his violent acts and rejection of modern life. The cabin became and icon of the anarchistic rage he had enacted from its isolated interior. To most, Ted Kaczynski represents the dystopian pole of social isolation, an idefensible variety of outsiderness.”%20
We must then compare this image with that of Thoreau.
&“As a beloved dignitary of American history, Thoreau is admired for his profound attunement to nature and for his living experiment in the cabin he built in 1846 at Walden Pond. He is the embodiment of New England, constituted by resolve, earthbound knowhow, Yankee independence, and a wild-is-the-wind spirit.”&21
What is compared here of course are the cabins, as much as the men themselves. In the case of Kaczynski the cabin is a sign of absolute madness and irrationality, how could anybody do what he did?22 In the case of Thoreau, the cabin is a sign of experiment, resolve and ingenuity. Both cabins are of course almost exactly the same. What inhabited or dwelled in them, in the Heideggerian sense, is what tarnished the image of the second cabin built on the plans of the first. Unfortunately the reality of the image is much darker and sober. In both instances each cabin on its own and at the same time represent the American spirit as such, in its natural excess and in its directness. Both Thoreau and Kaczynski share a similar disdain for civilized society, modernization and industrialization, for their neighbors and their petty pursuits and a similar love of all things natural, for quiet and solitude. This is the dark underside of American polity. It enshrines the public with a purely individualistic idealized image, that of the hut in the forest, the monad to which we belong and it to us. The American Eden is therefore a sea of cabins, isolated from one another with enough distance and barbed wire between them that not even the most ardent of governments could be foolish enough, or neighbors stupid enough to trespass. This is of course a silly reductionist view of Thoreau’s and Kaczynski’s ideas and yet there it is, standing like an edifice in the deserts of the West, in the plains of the Mid-West and the humidity of the South. This parceling out of all available land into tiny squares, like jig-saw puzzles, was the mercy killing of the American dream before anyone was able to dream it. To drive down any road and highway in America is to be followed by endless miles of barbed wire, delineating the property lines of this or that person, this or that corporation, this or that governmental department. Vast landscapes are turned into corridors through which humanity is shoved through like cattle, while real cattle turn the landscape into monoculture while enjoying its sublime beauty. One gets to wonder why turn this beautiful landscape into a de facto prison? And who is being kept out and who is being kept in? The “Not in My Backyard” or NIMBY culture is a strange outgrowth of Thoreau’s ideas and it can be said that Kaczynski was the NIMBY par excellence, having it partly as a justification for the murder of several people. Analyzing the various motivations for a life on the edge of civilization, we come to a disturbing fact that one cannot separate the two experiences of ‘out there’ and ‘in here.’ There is an inherent contradiction once we realize that the ‘out there’ disappears as soon as everyone else is ‘out there.’ This is the contradiction of the American private property love affair. We so desire our own piece of space, a place to call home but also desire to move outside of it, into public space, a space that belongs to God so to speak and to everyone. When this public space does not exist is precisely the point when the NIMBY in us stands up to those that would claim our space as potentially public. There is possibly nothing worse than to realize that all available space is in fact claimed and that there is literally no escape. Even in the forests one does not have to go far to come up on a property and a ‘no trespassing’ sign or the ubiquitous barbed wire. Perhaps the American dollar should replace its slogan ‘In God We Trust’ with ‘Keep Out’ to be truer to its outward appearance. This is of course a heavy assumption on my part and in a way I have to qualify the above by saying that perhaps the lack of space is in fact only a lack of desirable space. ‘Out there’ still exists, with the distinction that there are several types of ‘out there.’ There are very desirable ‘out there’ spaces, beach towns and surrounding areas, mountain spaces, anywhere near water or anywhere picturesque and then there are not so desirable ‘out there’ spaces generally those whose ancestry has been emptied, where humans once lived and moved on possibly due to catastrophe or economic reasons like the Midwest, but also there are ‘out there’ spaces where people do live but most would rather not and where life is quite difficult to sustain, Slab City or the Mesa by Taos for example. Here a Thoreau or Kaczynski type of existence is possible to a degree. Most inhabitants of these spaces are of the same sort, down on society, sharing a disdain for technology and the trappings of culture, hardened by the weather and landscape in which they live, living on a few dollars a week, with little access to water or food. By these standards Thoreau could be considered quite meek, having lived at Walden Pond only two years. But his experience informs the lives of these desert people as much as the lives of ordinary suburban Americans all over this country. It was only a matter of accidental oversight that America bought the corporate American Dream hook, line and sinker. The needle that once swayed toward the family home with two and a half kids and a car model is now slowly returning to the isolationist individualist prototype with great help from the film industry whose imagery is based on the ideal of individual determinism and social Darwinism, a pastiche of 19th century Romanticism with Gothic overtones.
Postmodernism and Nostalgia
If modernism has turned nostalgia and longing into quaint and sentimental feelings of madmen, then postmodernism has turned them into a pathology, ready to invade the minds of the unsuspecting public at any given moment, turning rational beings into hysterics and idiots. A desire for anything was turned into a manufactured desire for desire itself, a sea of abstractions that cannot be wrested away fron the experience or the experiencer. In essence, postmodernism removed the experience itself from those that have it so that it could be disinterestedly studies and explained away in rational terms as irrational and then given, emptied of intrinsic meaning back to the experiencer. The thought was that only the outsider can explain the experience in authentic terms because those having the experience cannot, they are too close to the source of it. Thus authentic experience in postmodernism is only vicarious and mediated. Point of view is suspect and the nostalgic is subject to an array of postmodern delusions.23 It is understandable why this is so. Modernism thrived on the erasure of the past, especially the past it deemed problematic, so instead of confronting it on its own terms, modernism instead chose to do away with it entirely, calling history nostalgic an the future utopian. Only the quasi religious idea of the present remained, which was of course the most ideal way to ground in reality what was truly happening – industrialization robbing people of autonomy and freedom, militarization and nationalism, exploitation of human and natural resources – all grounded in the idea that if all is only the present, then it doesn’t matter what our ancestors would think or what our children might one day say to us.
It is only fair to say that both America and Europe are guilty of this. It is an unfortunate dialectic in which the erasure of the past becomes the nightmare of the future – genocides, revolutions, etc – but also the symbolic and sentimental reconstructions of the past leave people in suspended state, looking over abysses of unresolved disputes, quandaries and wars. The nostalgic mind is a tortured one precisely because of this, but it is not a pathological one. It knows its desire is false, yet it desires nonetheless. It is a primordial yearning that finds refuge in images of grandeur and the sublime, the gothic and romantic, because it is close to them, it thinks in those terms. The nostalgic and the romantic are at home in the natural world which they seldom visit. When in the movie “2012” Woody Harrelson is finally face to face with the horrors of the exploding supervolcano under Yellowstone National Park, his face lights up with excitement even though he knows it is his last moment before he is swept up in the debris of the explosion and killed. This is the romantic ideal, to go out in a fury of ultimate destruction, a cleansing of the soiled spiritual world built up over thousands of years of emptying of the authentic experience via religious abstractions. The sublime draws one in so that one cannot look away. It is therefore easy to think of nostalgia as a negative emotion, a poison of the thinking mind. But how can this position be defended, given that most of us feel it at one point or another, when we watch the sunset, stand high on a mountain top, look over the Grand Canyon, etc. Why this pathologising of longing as such if it is a great inspiration for art and artists everywhere? Perhaps it is the reverse pathology of the new and of newness that is the answer. Those who think in terms of the new seldom give the past any thought, even though they themselves suffer from the same kind of longing, that of the future new, a nostalgia for more of the same to come via the old. It is perhaps this awareness that gives credence to the reactionary attitude toward nostalgia because it is itself nostalgic. But longing belongs to the human experience as do happiness, anger or arousal. Why try to take it away from the experiencer through overinflated statements and distanced academic abstractions that leave little meaning outside of the texts in which they appear? To do so would be to wrest the experience from people like Thoreau, Emerson and Heidegger. Surely they were not just nostalgic lunatics!
Perhaps those that think negatively of nostalgia and longing do so because their own life experience was not spent in involuntary exile from a place of their birth or they were not moving from place to place with their parents at a young age and into their teens when they could not have much say in the matter. Nostalgia and longing describe actively a sense of loss that is personal in nature but also ver subjective and hard to pin down. But an absolute dismissal of them precludes the capacity to explore them fully and consciously. Additionally the problem might be rooted in the generational gap separating the emotionally distant and exempt 20th Century generations brought up on a steady diet of scientific rationalism, a distancing of affect and substance, rooted in discourse rather than direct experience and the younger generations whose strategy to circumvent this distance was to become overtly passionate, emotional and involved. The male coolness and strategic replaced by a warmer female spontaneity. There is a fundamental difference of belief between these generations. 20th century philosophy functioned on the basis of belief that perhaps nothing is true (all was a question of what and how we believe in the first place and how do we separate our beliefs from what actually is, what is true and what is only opinion and so on), that god does not exist (in the wake of the horrors of WW2, the Nazi and the Stalinist state one can hardly believe anything other could be true) and that as a result one must believe in nothing to give value to the relative meaninglessness of the existing reality. Today this philosophy is radically reversing itself because it is the opposite that seems to be true. The radical belief in nothing comes to us today as the belief in everything. If nothing was true in the past then everything is true today, in a way keeping relativism intact and undercutting it at the same time. Personal experience therefore gives rise to personal truth that dismantles universal truth as much as keeps it in place so that the personal and particular can exist. This radical difference is in the simple reversal of the act of saying “no” to everything to saying “yes” to everything. Do you believe in ghosts, aliens, the virgin Mary, Krishna, Vishnu, Allah, Buddha, Carl Sagan? Absolutely. What in the outside seems like irrational naivete is actually a clear strategy of survival in a world of empty value systems, a world falling to pieces at a time when rational thought is supposedly at its peak, when the administration of this world is so heavy there seems to be no escape from it, so perhaps the only way to successfully rob of its power is to appropriate it. This is where conspiracy theory enters the picture. If one is not able to escape the clutches of modern society, conspiracy theory offers meaning to those whose lives have little to no meaning. If everything we see is according to philosophers like Baudrillard only simulation then nothing has any intrinsic value and therefore no meaning outside of its surface structure. It seems that even though most people do not know who Baudrillard or Barthes are, it remains that we do live in a very shallow surface oriented society. Spectacle permeates ordinary experience to such a degree that one cannot dissociate a normal experience, say a short net surfing episode, from the spectacle of blinking lights, noises, advertisements and pop culture icons all vying for our attention. Conspiracy theory brings back meaning to the emptiness of modern experience in that it assumes a greater and deeper context for what is happening. Like the Russian novel of the 19th century, conspiracy theory is the great narrative of the 21st century. Kaczynski’s manifesto “Industrial Society” is a litany of complaints heaped against the most vile conspiracy of Leftism.24 He does level a similar complaint against the conservative Right, but only because of its defense of Leftist oversocialization and adherence to industrialization and modernization.
Friedrich’s ‘Wanderer’ painting is tied to most if not all individualist ideology. It is of course a heavily mediated ideology, coming down through film and painting. The solitary figure above a sea of clouds and high mountain tops is the quintessential male escape, though not necessarily only tied to the male experience. What we are used to seeing however is the monadic male within a vast sublime landscape. It is the image of Zarathustra climbing the mountaintop before he sets off on one of his treks back down to the city only to climb the mountain yet again in a succession of climbs and descends. It is the image of the self, the Being-in-the-world, with itself, the pondering philosopher in solitude doing what he does. It is also the image of an interloper, the onlooker who surveys the land for his pleasure and perhaps personal gain, it is the man as conqueror of lands, or nature. He is at once dwarfed by nature and himself in direct competition with it always seeking to subdue it. At its most benign, this image is of the tourist climbing an overlook to quickly scan the area, ponder its vastness, snap a picture for the collections and quickly speeding off in his car to another overlook with another splendid vista for his gaze. How can one not think of Friedrich’s painting without thinking of Hitler’s Eagle’s Nest, his private/public getaway with a sublime view of the Austrian Alps, where he and his generals concocted plans for the German one thousand year Reich. How can one also not think of John Wayne looking from the top of a plateau at the Indians below and the vast landscape of Monument Valley in a filmic rethinking and redoubling of Manifest Destiny. This space belongs to men, the few, the chosen, able to lead an authentic life unreliant on the trappings of civilization. This is also the reason that John Wayne as his contempt and racism increasingly come out during the film The Searchers gets shut out of the communal family space of the cabin, this space belongs to the warmth and nurture of female forces. The reimaging of the Wanderer painting drives home the sentiment found in most of contemporary culture, at best ambivalent and at worst indignant toward its tenuous relationship to technology and civilization. The more ubiquitous technology becomes, the more prevalent the sentiment that civilization is at its death throes and the more the image of the individual determined to oppose it becomes necessary. Films like Oblivion, 2012, After Earth and others, deal with societal collapse and each recycles the image of the Wanderer, marveling in perpetuity at the sublimity of the landscape and also dominating it by his presence and gaze without regard to the actual horrors of such collapse down below. These films are just a small sample of the kinds of trope that Hollywood uses as background for its specific political message. But perhaps the biggest reason for such tropism is a possibility of the 19th century replaying itself in the minds of the globalized internet-driven public. The romantic idea of collapse of civilization shown in the paintings of Thomas Cole called The Course of Empire is usually shown as the ‘day after’ in films. Zombies plague the land, robots destroy everything in their path, utopia turns dystopia, villains and corruption are ubiquitous. Some films of the catastrophic genre are focused entirely on things breaking apart, planes falling from the sky, the grid shutting down, nuclear attacks. People on the whole do tend to be suspicious of technology. They welcome its possibilities but are wary of its excess,26 thus the heavy mediation of these subjects offering a certain amount of distance. Perhaps another reason for this uneasiness with technology is the recent global experience of the disintegration of a whole society in the wake of 1989. Back then, Communism, an ideology as unshakeable as modern hyper-capitalism and as plugged into the most current state of the art technology, went out in a blaze of spectacular revolutions, making the whole idea of stability of culture into a notion. Nations disintegrate and this produces instability even in places where stability exists, like a bad dream that one is not sure whether it really happened. And because nations were and are thought to be ‘forever’ and ‘historical’, it is all the more unsettling when they do fall apart. “The century of the Enlightenment, of rationalist secularism, brought with it its own modern darkness. With the ebbing of religious belief, the suffering which belief in part composed did not disappear. Disintegration of paradise: nothing makes fatality more arbitrary. Absurdity of salvation: nothing makes another style of continuity more necessary.”27 This is why the modern nation was invented in the first place. But of course the biggest culprit seems to be climate change, with genetic manipulation, bio engineering and robotics as side notes. It is the big unknown, the bogey man of scientist, politician and priest alike. The once pet idea of a few specialized researchers, it is now a populist grand narrative and at its beginning is indeed technology and its misuse by humanity. As a scare tactic, it is as potent as Catholic hellfire and as ready for an explosion of indeterminate violence. No wonder that the best and worst art is based around human suffering resulting from such violent begetting. Perhaps Thoreau and Kaczynski had the right idea. Might the best possible solution to these issues on the one hand be a melancholy awareness and perhaps a bit of shadefreude and on the other a run for the hills?
1. Vaclav Cilek, Dychat s Ptaky (transl. To Breathe With the Birds) (Prague: Dokoran, 2008), 72
2. Martin Heidegger, Basic Writings (New York: Harper and Row, 1975), 320-339
3. This was the Nazi ideology of ‘Blood and Soil’ that glorified peasant and rural life and denigrated city dwellers. The land played a major role in this ideology and the pastoral landscape was the ideal setting for it. The city was thus more readily deemed expendable, it’s moral compass corrupted by the ghettos, overpopulation, crime, and so on. Keith R. Swaney, “An Ideological War of 'Blood and Soil' and Its Effect on the Agricultural Propaganda and Policy of the Nazi Party, 1929-1939,” The Gettysburg Historical Journal 3 (2004), 45-74
4. Each cabin presents us with meditation on a problem of excess. In succession each cabin moves progressively from one cultural ideal to the next. Heidegger’s hut is the typically middle class dwelling seeking to be a place of rustic refuge but was an early site of his political excesses, Thoreau’s cabin is the Anarchist utopia waiting to be realized and Kaczynski’s cabin is the male dream of wilderness, a primordial experience of nature. Thoreau’s cabin is a link between the other two.
5. To understand what I mean by nationalism a number of quotes from Benedict Anderson’s Imagined Communities should be able to elucidate this topic. “In an anthropological spirit, then, I propose the following definition of the nation: it is an imagined political community – and imagined as both inherently limited and sovereign. It is imagined because the members of even the smallest nation will never know most of their fellow-members, meet them, or even hear of them, yet in the minds of each lives the image of their communion.” p. 6 “Nationalism is not the awakening of nations to self-consciousness: it invents nations where they do not exist.” quoting Ernest Gellner on p. 6 “The nation is imagined as limited because even the largest of them, encompassing perhaps a billion living human beings, has finite, if elastic, boundaries, beyond which lie other nations. No nation imagines itself coterminous with makind.” “It is imagined as sovereign because the concept was born in an age in which Enlightenment and Revolution were destroying the legitimacy of the divinely-ordained, hierarchical dynastic realm.” “Finally, it is imagined as a community, because, regardless of the actual inequality and exploitation that may prevail in each, the nation is always conceived as a deep, horizontal comradeship.” p. 7. [Benedict Anderson, Imagined Communities (New York: Verso, 2006)]
6. Slavoj Zizek, The Plague of Fantasies (New York: Verso, 2008), 72
7. Anders Breivik, the Norwegian terrorist had apparently sent Varg Vikernes, possibly the most infamous Norwegian Blak Metal musician, his manifesto before going on his 2011 rampage that resulted in the deaths of 77 people. [John Lichfield, “Musician and ‘Anders Breivik sympathiser’ Kristian Vikernes arrested in France for ‘plotting massacre.’ The Independent, July 16, 2013, accessed May 13, 2015, http://www.independent.co.uk/news/world/europe/musician-and-anders-breivik-sympathiser-kristian-vikernes-arrested-in-france-for-plotting-massacre-8711653.html]
8. This phenomenon is fairly recent and one does not have to go far to find proof of this. Page 68 of Fine Homebuilding 2015 Awards issue has one such example of a family of three living in a 207 square foot home of modern build, design and amenities. The desire for a freedom unknown to most, save for Thoreau and Kaczynski, just such a family is able to share a house the size of a large master bedroom.
9. Adam Sharr, Heidegger’s Hut (Cambridge: MIT Press, 2006), 55-62
10. Ibid, 49-54
11. Some of the information on the subject of family cabins and cottages in Europe comes from personal experience as well as few Czech sociological studies [“Chataření a Chalupaření” http://nadrevo.blogspot.com/2010/02/chatareni-chalupareni.html]
12. Barbara Bolt, Heidegger Reframed (London: I.B. Tauris, 2011), 17
13. Adam Sharr, Heidegger’s Hut (Cambridge: MIT Press, 2006), 55
14. Gaston Bachelard, The Poetics of Space (Boston: Beacon Press, 1994), 27
15. Ibid, 27
16. Adam Sharr, Heidegger’s Hut (Cambridge: MIT Press, 2006), 63-77
17. Julie Ault and James Benning, Two Cabins (New York: A.R.T. Press, 2011), 111
18. Paul Celan came to pay a visit upon Heidegger’s invitation and wrote a poem shortly thereafter. For a great exegesis of the poem ‘Todtnauberg’ see Pierre Joris, “Celan/Heidegger: Translation at the Mountain of Death,” http://epc.buffalo.edu/authors/joris/todtnauberg.html
19. Julie Ault and James Benning, Two Cabins (New York: A.R.T. Press, 2011), 120
20. Ibid, 104
21. Ibid, 105
22. On this mediated image of Kaczynski the ‘Unabomber’ see John Zerzan’s chapter “Whose Unabomber?” in Running on Emptiness (Los Angeles: Feral House, 2002), 151-155
23. Susan Stewart, On Longing (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1984), 23
24. Ted Kaczynski, “Industrial Society and Its Future” Technological Slavery: The Collected Writings of Theodore J. Kaczynski, a.k.a. “The Unabomber” (Port Townsend: Feral House, 2010), 39-49, 106-112
25. David Skrbina, introduction to Technological Slavery: The Collected Writings of Theodore J. Kaczynski, a.k.a. “The Unabomber” (Port Townsend: Feral House, 2010), 23
26. Benedict Anderson, Imagined Communities (New York: Verso, 2006), 11