Faced with a “very lonely region of boundless horizons, under a perfectly cloudless sky, trees and plants in the perfectly motionless air, no animals, no human beings, no moving masses of water, the profoundest silence”—faced with all of this, Schopenhauer presents us with a body that is wholly divested of all corporeal intentions, reduced to a “vanishing nothingness” (p. 206). How do we get to this disembodied, affective state having previously been in a state of shared identity with the natural world? The answer is through a consummation of the subject-object relation. During moments of sublimity, we are “lost” in the object of contemplation, our own individuation suspended in a spectral chamber.
All that matters is the place. A lonely region summons a particular state, undermining the split between nature and human subjectivity. Precisely this commitment to content and context is where Schopenhauer enters into an unborn dialogue with Merleau-Ponty. Turning to the posthumously published “working notes” of Merleau-Ponty, then much of what is left unsaid about the flesh – not least its basically homogenous structure – can be modified with an appeal to Schopenhauer’s account of the will in nature.
How does the “brute being” of which Merleau-Ponty speaks come into an affective encounter? The problem is really that for Merleau-Ponty we are forever embodied, whereas if we are to link the classical sublime with the idea of a wild being, where “wild being” refers to a pre-reflective world, then the body – the cultural and cognitive body – must be carried along with us. All of this is a rather convoluted way of dealing with the body as a self-conscious thing. How to travel from the body as a cultural thing, affected with anxieties and passions, to the body as a region of the earth, in which all accounts of personal identity and the personal body are replaced by the anonymity of the wilderness?
The opening of Herzog’s Aguirre, The Wrath of God (from where the above pictures are taken) gives us a nice instance of this tension between the anonymity of nature and the shared depth of the visible and the invisible. At first, the impression of this scene can be formulated as thus: human being, finite and egotistical, swallowed by the infinite and boundless grip of the surrounding world, the result of which instigates an aesthetic of the sublime in the viewer attending to this movement. Human being is literally dwarfed by the mountains, with all that is peculiar to human life – above all, the face – smouldered in the foggy presence of the Amazonian mountains. But this formula lends itself to the desire of the viewer, pre-empting the sublime in advance. Recall Merleau-Ponty: “There is a fundamental narcissism of all vision.” The scene is too easily read as a classical vision of the sublime. But if we reformulate the opening as less a mode of human life colonised by barren, anonymous wilderness and more as a scene of deep ambiguity between the microcosmic animation of human movement and the colossal stillness of the mountain, then the result is more of a hybrid. The mountain moves. Who is doing the moving, who commands the mountain: human life or the materiality of the mountain itself? The answer would be both. But this is not a harmonious agreement (as Herzog outlines in his inspiring philosophy of nature). Rather, what we are witnessing is a literal chiasm, a literal intersection of two pathways. As a viewer, the landscape touches a part of our embodied being that was there all along, and this is the flesh coming alive—a sentiment that is best expressed in Merleau-Ponty’s claim that “It is impossible to say that nature ends here and that man…starts here.”