Environments: Ecologies and (In)Hospitalities

For the 7th time the Portuguese Association for Anglo-American Studies meets at the Faculty of Letters of the University of Coimbra. The specificity of this meeting, dedicated to ENVIRONMENTS: ECOLOGIES AND (IN)HOSPITALITIES, as compared to previous ones, lies perhaps in the fact that it takes place in a context where humanity has been forced to prepare for the end of the world. However, this version of the apocalypse should be corrected, since the world whose end is at stake here is the human world only. I would like to quote at this point the Brazilian indigenous leader Ailton Krenak, who reminds us that “humanity has been detaching itself in such an absolute manner from this organism that is the earth” that “The only nuclei that still consider that they need to stay attached to this earth are those that have been kind of forgotten on the edges of the planet, on the banks of rivers, on the shores of oceans, in Africa, Asia or Latin America. They are caiçaras, Indians, quilombolas, aborigines – sub-humanity. Because there is a humanity that is, let’s say, cool. And there is a more rough, rustic, organic layer, a sub-humanity, a people that are stuck to the earth. It seems that they want to eat earth, suck the earth, sleep lying on the dirt, wrapped in the dirt” [1] (p. 22). Why has modernity become so inhospitable to this humanity that wants to eat and suck the earth? I return to Ailton’s perplexity: “How can we recognize a place of contact between these two worlds, which have so much common origin, but have become detached to the point that today we have, at one end, people who need to live off a river and, at the other, people who consume rivers as a resource?” (p. 51)

Rivers, as we know, are a resource of long consumption in literature, from the Tiber or the Tagus to the Lethes. This helps us realize that literature, as inscription and sign, cannot place itself outside the antinomies previously listed by Ailton Krenak. Allow me an American example. In a January 21, 1838 entry, Thoreau writes in his journal: “Every leaf and twig was this morning covered with a sparkling ice armor; even the grasses in exposed fields were hung with innumerable diamond pendants, which jingled merrily when brushed by the foot of the traveller.” [2] And after a few more passages of unsurpassed micro-description of the wonders of nature, the author concludes: “Such is beauty ever – neither here nor there, now nor then, neither in Rome nor in Athens, but wherever there is a soul to admire. If I seek her elsewhere because I do not find her at home, my search will prove a fruitless one” (p. 4). The passage expresses a tension around the abode of beauty, which only truly exists when it is at home, but which does not exist without a soul to admire it. Beauty exists, then, everywhere, as long as it can be said of it that it is at home. But in the economy of the passage and in the logic of Thoreau’s writing, in the Journals or in Walden, it is clear that the abode in which beauty is truly at home is Nature, which thus functions as the paradigm of beauty and of the aesthetic education of humanity. At this point, however, it is worth remembering, with Stanley Cavell, that “Walden is itself about a book, about its own writing and reading” [3] – something that, incidentally, we can say of all literature and the relationship it has with Nature (a relationship, at least in part, instrumental). But it is worth adding yet another of Cavell’s contributions about Walden: “It was written in an, as it were, pre-philosophical moment of its culture, a moment as yet primitive with respect to the sophistication or professionalization of philosophy, when philosophy and literature and theology (and politics and economics) had not isolated themselves out from one another but when these divorcements could be felt as imminent, for better or worse” (p. xiii-xiv). These words allow us on the one hand to bring Thoreau’s non-disenchanted perspective closer to that of Ailton Krenak, and on the other to address the question, always underlying the representation of nature, that the American artist Robert Smithson designated with the term “scale” in a 1972 essay on his legendary work “The Spiral Jetty”, a spiral made of mud, rock, and crystals in the Great Salt Lake, Utah, and one of the icons of Land Art: “The scale of The Spiral Jetty tends to fluctuate depending on where the viewer happens to be. Size determines an object, but scale determines art. A crack in the wall if viewed in terms of scale, not size, could be called the Grand Canyon. A room could be made to take on the immensity of the solar system. Scale depends on one’s capacity to be conscious of the actualities of perception. When one refuses to release scale from size, one is left with an object or language that appears to be certain. For me scale operates by uncertainty. To be in the scale of The Spiral Jetty is to be out of it” [4] (p. 147). Scale, let’s say, is the range of possibilities that art offers the human to make him feel at home outside of himself – a range of possibilities that in the Spiral Jetty example seems to be anchored in Nature, but which in fact, and in strict Kantian argumentation, is alien to the sensible and the natural beauty, being instead, in Smithson’s terms, the result of a perception that frees scale from the yoke of size. An experience that in our days has passed overwhelmingly to the digital, this pure scale without size.

Can we see here an allegory of the difficult relationship of the languages of art to the idea of nature and to nature itself, which in the Kantian construct can only aspire to beautiful form, but never to sublimity? In 1970, the same year of Smithson’s Spiral Jetty, portuguese artist Alberto Carneiro created “A forest for your dreams”, an installation consisting of a series of 200 pine trunks cut at unequal heights, arranged so that the viewer can look at, touch, and walk through them. This is ecological art, in the author’s designation, which produces not representation but presentification [5], or rather, an amputated presence, since what remains from the trunks is an intermediate section. A work without the Promethean dimension present in Smithson, who intervenes grandiosely over nature, “A forest for your dreams,” like almost all of Carneiro’s work, wishes to send us back to that pre-philosophical stage that Cavell pointed to Thoreau, adding artistic intention to a lost communal or mystical drive, making us dream of the possibility of re-enchantment and bringing us closer to a point of Amerindian thought that we find in Ailton Krenak: “humans are not the only beings that are interesting and have an outlook on existence. Many others do too” (p. 32). For example, animals, mountains, rivers, trees, the “spirit of places”.

The essay by Ailton Krenak to which I have been referring has the beautiful and desperate title, Ideas for postponing the end of the world. In the words of the author, “my provocation about postponing the end of the world is exactly always to be able to tell one more story. If we can do that, we are postponing the end” (p. 27). In another version, less orientalist and more Amerindian [6], Ailton says: “When you feel that the sky is getting too low, just push it and breathe” (28). My wish for this conference is that we can, with it, push the sky a little further, breathe, and postpone for a while longer the end of the world.

Thank you very much.

[This text was delivered at the opening session of the 42th Meeting of the Portuguese Association for Anglo-American Studies at the Faculty of Letters of the University of Coimbra, on March 31, 2022]

[1] Ailton Krenak, Ideias para adiar o fim do mundo. São Paulo: Companhia das Letras, 2019.

[2] The Heart of Thoreau’s Journals. Edited by Odell Shepard. New York: Dover Publications, Inc., 1961.

[3] Stanley Cavell, The Senses of Walden: An Expanded Edition. Chicago and London: The University of Chicago Press, 1981.

[4] Robert Smithson, The Collected Writings. Edited by Jack Flam. Berkeley, Los Angeles, London: University of California Press, 1996.

[5] I’m quoting freely from the presentation of the work by Isabel Carlos at the link above.

[6] The metaphor of the “fall from heaven” is part of the cosmogony presented and explored in Davi Kopenawa and Bruce Albert’s book, A Queda do Céu. Palavras de um xamã yanomami. São Paulo: Companhia das Letras, 2015.