Nature, naturalists and naturalism

Observing the Great Nature Schism, as it is unlikely to be called in the future, I found myself thinking about naturalism too, in both its philosophical sense as the empirical study of the material world and its literary sense as the supply of detail to create a staged impression of the material world.

It seems as though the sort of writing the avengers of the correct, pure type of nature writing are advocating, at least on the surface of it, is mimetic writing. It is as though we need more writing that seeks to identify the fine detail of things – in this case living things that are not human – and to pin them down in the collector’s case of Nature Writing. If you muddy the pursuit of mimetic detail with things that are less pindownable, like allusions or ideas or, heaven forfend, sub-plots, the illusion of the text providing an image of reality falls apart a bit.

It’s not just the professional naturalists who seem to like naturalism. Most readers do. We like something concrete that feels authentic and real. It reflects a more general literary trend over the last hundred years or so, which is the relentless pursuit of naturalism in fiction and non-fiction alike.

Erich Auerbach famously saw this as a good thing – that it was somehow more honest and demotic to create pretend detail to furnish the reader’s perception of a scene. But Mimesis was written in the 1940s, when the full impact of the new technologies of television and film, among other things, had not yet been fully realised.

One of the outcomes of access to instantaneous and granular televisual detail is that it makes reading feel a bit like hard work. And if reading is hard work, reading that necessitates a bit of imaginative stretching is bloody hard work. When I read the early chapters of Mimesis, I feel mournful not for our ancestors’ lack of literary technique but for our desiccated imaginations. I recently considered adapting the Satyricon into a contemporary setting and was struck, among other things, by the lack of narrative detail in it. Once upon a time, the act of reading involved a fair amount of furnishing too.

I’m not going to get stuck into Mimesis, tempting as it is, because Terry Eagleton did a much better job of it twelve years ago and I therefore wouldn’t dare. But I do think that Auerbach’s pursuit of the really real struck a chord in a post-war world that was increasingly industrialised – and thus nostalgic for an imagined idea of authenticity, like the pure, big-N Nature – and also a bit intellectually lazy thanks to the more passive pleasures of watching telly.

[Auerbach sees a progressive political project in the fall of high art, which, given the Wagnerian fasco-epic predilections of his immediate cultural predicament seems fair enough, but the flipside of it is ideological in its own way. Perhaps we could note, in counter-example, that the apparent realism of the novel lends itself, in a similar fashion to film, to an efficacious provocation of emotive responses. It makes it easy to construct an apparently convincing moral framework and to sell it. This can work for good and for bad.]

The rise and rise of the exhaustive biography is, perhaps, the literary apotheosis of this search for the Real. Somehow, the mimetic detail of a novel doesn’t quite cut it. We need a mimesis-upgrade to historical fiction, so that rooting it to a Real Time and a Real Place makes it more comfortingly real to read. But the fictive element of fiction then becomes disconcerting. Let’s cut to the chase and go for biography instead.

I think something analogous, if not similar, is going on with nature writing. Rather than looking inward to the imagination for the constant supply of detail that readers increasingly appear to need, or outward to the realm of ideas, it is naturalistic detail that is the only valid sort for the nature police. It requires a particular exhaustive specialist knowledge honed by years of love and attention to detail that the rest of us might never even know was there.

The nature of looking closely at anything is that you unpack new bits of detail with every close-up: it has a fractal quality. There is also a magic to the worlds you can find within it, and a further magic to the notion that I am certain must occur to most readers of these sorts of books that somebody was able to develop the love and attention to detail in order to write it in the first place.

But there is something else going on. There is a pursuit of fixity and a desire to tell, journalistically, the truth in a precarious world in which a new wave of extinction promises to render the diversity of non-human species more precarious than ever. We tend to place value on scarcity, and the existential threat we pose to the non-human natural world makes it seem all the more precious by virtue of its precarity. When trees, hedgerows or wildflower meadows appear not only exceptional but finite it seems like an important political statement to try one’s best to capture them as they are now. We need to create a representation of their material reality because it is a reality that looks as though it might slip away terrifyingly soon.

And I get all of that. It all seems sound. But it isn’t what art should necessarily be about. And it also isn’t the case that a thing exhaustively created to provide a full, round picture of something that feels real is really real. It is only ever a mimicry of the great outdoors, framed by human aims.