My Idea of Nature

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Justin E. H. Smith over at his blog:

For most of my adult life, beginning, really, in the rebellious years of adolescence, I have been against nature. This phrase, against nature, is the standard title for the English translation of J.-K. Huysmans' splendid 1884 novel, À rebours, but when I use it here, I don't mean generally perverted or out-of-whack. I mean I have cultivated a consummately urban existence, and have insisted that people who rush off to commune with the great outdoors are wasting their time. Part of this is based in a concern –about whose legitimacy I have not begun to doubt– that modern urbanites who speak of how in tune with nature they are are simply deluding themselves, that they no more succeed in bridging the nature/culture divide when they go off camping for a weekend than I do when I stay home in the city and blog. I've often suspected that typically a philosopher's idea of 'nature' consists in little more than a memory of a trip to R.E.I., or the thought of the picture of themselves kayaking that they selected for their department website. I've wanted none of that, and so have shut it out entirely.

Have I been wrong to do so? Back East, where I've always felt culturally at home but, with respect to nature, utterly against the grain (the other standard title for Huysmans' novel), I don't spend much time thinking about this question. The meteorology of the East Coast is schizophrenic and malign; and the wildlife, as Buffon already understood, is degenerate. The closest thing to mountains over there are the final fading bumps of an ancient range. The only animals are pests. Even when it's not hot it's too hot.

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