I first experienced the "naturalist’s trance" in Südtirol. Alone in the woods, free from the demands of human society, I could enter a world oblivious to mine. The almost forgotten belief of the unity of man and nature and of man's trusteeship of the earth is still held in such remote places of the Alps, where occasionally, by the footpath, track or road, at an intersection, along the edge of a field or of a forest, wayside crosses oversee the scene and make of their skillfully carved figures of Jesus Christ the locus of God's presence. Over and above averting fires, lightning and avalanches, they warm the hearts of those who seek spiritual meaning in nature, venturing a teleological viewpoint that posits an intelligent designer as a god.

They’re reminiscent of a long-lost symbiosis that in the Western world we experienced the last time in the nineteenth century. Thereafter, any legacy and ghastly apparitions of that “invisible church” waned forever. I wish I could relive the age of Goethe, feel the way of a Stürm-und-Dränger, scrambling into caves, meandering through forests and ascending the rays of stars and the courses of rivers to contemplate my inner self. And the next thing, I'll find myself to eavesdrop on the lecture of philosophy professor Friedrich Schelling in the late winter of 1798 saying there is a “secret bond connecting our mind with nature”. That would have been enough to quench my wanderlust. It was precisely at this moment that thought and art continually affected and interacted with each other, and all aspects of spiritual life were born into a profound cultural unity whose fulcrum, truly thriving and emanating, was this philosophy of oneness: “all art should become science and all science art; poetry and philosophy should be made one.”

Today the division of our culture is making us more obtuse than we need be: we are not going to turn out men and women who understand as much of our world as Piero della Francesca did of his, or Pascal, or Giacomo Leopardi. Although to see the sacredness of life and world we have no need of a god, modern society as a whole refutes any mystery and deter from getting involved, from participating in it. It is a characteristic of our times that thinking, feeling and willing have become separated from each other.
On an intellectual level we were awe struck by the images of discoveries science has made since Einstein’s curved space-time; he managed to renew a bit of our notion of the sacred in the universe, but that doesn’t seem to be sufficient. The rationalistic valuation of all things has diminished us all. In past times when science, philosophy and religion were, for the generality of mankind, contained within a diffuse apprehension of life, men relied on their sense of wonder, rather than on exact measurement and ratiocination, to help interpret the riddle of the universe. Ultimately, humanities research can ask questions that science should address, questions that scientists may not have asked yet.

Modern science has instead not succeeded in saving an essential component of the old cosmic thinking: knowledge has to come from the living status, it should be nourished by a radical lack of certainty, not by the scalpel precision. For example, those who choose to study Zoology, still deemed as a minority subject in universities, often make their decision without appreciating its profound philosophical significance, keeping out from its scope the call to decipher the emergence of signs and communication among kingdoms. We lost the notion that science is so human an endeavor. From the Swiss naturalist Johann Jakob Scheuchzer, whose work Physica sacra showed the ark surrounded by fossils, then considered "witnesses" of the Flood, to the Carporama, wax models of Mauritian fruits made by Louis Robillard d'Argentelle, a unified version of nature prevailed, connecting the the sacred, the scientific and the artistic. Being in the world, studying it and representing it all flowed from the same analogical process, which was based on a perception of the living as a totality, an uninterrupted network.

Of course, no respectable thinker today after Darwin would ever believe that creatures are ordered according to their degree of perfection; there isn’t a great chain of being, there isn’t a higher purpose and humans are not the culmination of anything. With no hint of hope, symbolist artists of the fin de siècle, seemed to presage something of that chance-blown universe and showed uncanny, hybrids beings with hideous physiognomies. Their creations reflected a fear of regression, a desire for pre-human states, a fascination with half human, half bestial creatures.
Truth being stranger than fantasy, biological and genetic research has definitively confirmed our kinship with all living beings. “Evolution jumbles bodies like a dream jumbles words and images”. We are probably composites, mergers of once different creatures. Life forms consist of layer upon archaeological layer of information. Swim bladders in fish evolved into lungs in land animals. Our cranial nerves are derived from the gill arches of fish. What we call Nature is really just solidified history that we aren’t studying closely enough. Along these lines, A.G. Cairns-Smith has made the intriguing suggestion that our ancestors, the first replicators, may have been not organic molecules at all, but inorganic crystals, mineral, little bits of clay. Every single life form is literally familiar. We’re genetically descended from them.

Now, after billions of years of life, the course of evolution is too deep and elusive for us to discern and thinking of nature as pointless and heretical or as a gradual and progressive, is a matter of choice. My belief is that both the biologist and the ardent theist are met with self-contradiction and only through what Goethe has called “an exact sensorial fantasy” (‘Exakte sinnliche Phantasie’) may we hope to come near the quality of living things.

Scientists had peered through microscopes to see the minutiae of life, yet there remained questions about what might be happening down there. Of reality itself we know nothing, and the more in detail our understanding of how things connect with each other, the more ambiguous they become. A void opens up in our social and psychological space. At the end of its analysis, physics is no longer sure if what is left on its hands is pure energy or thought. Science is knocking at the door of metaphysics, which tries to gain an intuitive knowledge of reality. We are not only scientific intellects, we are also human beings. To express in momentous symbols the core of reality, is what myth, poetry, and art are trying to do. More than anything else, the element that allows us to establish our dominion over reality is the imagination. The real revolution of human sciences is happening now and through art. Conceptual artists are in fact “mystics, rather than rationalists”, leaping to conclusions that logic cannot reach.

Baudelaire had defined imagination as “an almost divine faculty which perceives immediately the inner and secret relations of things, the correspondences and analogies.” Blake suggested that we should learn to look through, not only with our eyes. Dr C. G. Jung, working partly as an empiricist and partly as an intuitive, has followed Goethe's lead and has attempted an interpretation of nature in relation to the human psyche. Henri Bergson in the introduction to his Creative Evolution suggests that, “If instinct were articulate, if we could ask it, and it could reply it would render up to us the most intimate secrets the Universe”. Instinct leads; intelligence does but follow. This was the way of the natural philosophers in the nineteenth century and is still the way of many scientists today. Through sympathy and antipathy, and through the anguish of effort, we experience in ourselves something of what is happening in the creature, and so we may, with good fortune, come near the mystery of instinctive life.

So I shall undermine the mystique of science, and finally, while our scientific education starves our visual, creative faculty, I want to give it splendid play. I intend to affiliate with other forms of life, enter into the dream of nature and glimpse the possibility that the non-human realm is not impersonal and that consciousness is scattered in "the whole organic world”. After all artists are magical helpers.

This had yet relevance in the nineteenth century, as shown in a passage from The Sea in which Jules Michelet, in 1861, placed the algae known as coralline algae at the limits of the "three kingdoms" and at the origin of life: “They tend towards the animal, they tend towards the mineral, and, finally, are assigned to the vegetable. Perchance they form the real point at which Life obscurely and mysteriously rises from the slumber of the stone, without utterly quitting that rude starting-point, as if to remind us, so high placed and so haughty, of the right of even the humble mineral to rise into animation, and of the deep eternal aspiration that lies buried, but busy, in the bosom of Nature.”

It’s a practice and a process of becoming fully aware of how human beings are connected with other beings: Animal, vegetable, or mineral. For this suggestion of supernatural spookiness leaves open the possibility that our minds and those of our fellow non-humans exist on a natural continuum; it leaves open the possibility that there’s some point to this whole exercise in which all the deer and frogs and people are enmeshed. Life itself, in spite of its apparent separateness and individuality, runs all and presents us with a strange union of ideas: Remoteness and proximity, vulnerability and responsibility, wonder and love. The outcome of all this is that the individual sees the unity in the universe. Instead of just this fragmented world in which he’s doing selfish acts, he sees a purpose for the universe of which he is a small part. And in a tribalistic manner he now submerges himself into the grand plan, a great plan. And that brings a certain very profound peace.

Emanuele Torti
February 2024

Immanuel Kant, Critique of Practical Reason, 1788
J. W. von Goethe, Seeing in subjective terms, 1790
F. W. J. Schelling, First Outline of a System of the Philosophy of Nature, 1799
K. W. Friedrich von Schlegel, Dialogue on Poetry and Literary Aphorisms, 1800
Charles Baudelaire, The Painter of Modern Life and Other Essays, 1860
C. P. Snow, The Two Cultures, 1959
E. L. Grant Watson, The mystery of physical life, 1964
Sol Lewitt, Sentences on Conceptual Art, 1968
Edward O. Wilson, Biophilia, 1984
Timothy Morton, The Ecological Thought, 2010
J.L. Siesling, Art is More, 2018