lightsA rolling meadow is considered to be a beautiful sight, whereas an apartment building is generally not accorded such a status. Even the greatest works of architecture can compare unfavourably to a magnificent mountain or an awe-inspiring gorge. What is it about natural phenomena that can make them seem superior to the works of man? Why does camping in a remote valley somehow feel more ‘real’ than sleeping in suburbia?

I think there are two major differences and that they are often confused. The first concerns authenticity. It is now possible to manufacture a diamond that is indistinguishable from one extracted from a mine, except by an expert with specialist equipment. But people still willingly pay huge sums of money for a ‘genuine’ diamond and disdain the ‘fakes’. Of course, in this particular example there is also an element of snobbery and a desire to flaunt wealth. However, it is not hard to think of other examples in which people accord things a value far greater than their practical worth because they are ‘genuine’ or ‘original’. If a first edition is worth more than a recent copy of the same book and an original Stradivarius is worth more than an exact replica made yesterday, it is no wonder that people accord great worth to things that are not just not man-made copies but were never made by man at all! And yet, there is something disappointingly shallow about this quest for first editions. We tend not to laugh at the respectable gentleman investing in an original work of art but, with the exception of wealth and the status that it attracts in our society, how exactly does he differ from the nerd collecting first editions of comic books?

Although it might, on the surface, appear to be the opposite, the search for the ‘real thing’ is actually much the same as the pathological obsession with novelty that social commentators like to complain about. The problem seems to stem from a misapprehension of authenticity. The authenticity for which they strive is not a material concept. Consider the synthesised diamond. Chemically, it is a real diamond. It is not another substance that merely looks like diamond – such as cubic zirconia or moissanite – but it really is a lot of tetrahedrally bonded carbon atoms. However, it was deliberately manufactured in a laboratory. On the other hand, ‘real’ diamonds are dug from the ground by miners. So we have two diamonds, to all intents and purposes identical, which differ only in their origin. One is considered ‘real’ and the other ‘fake’. What is fake about it? If a jeweller attempted to pass it off as a ‘real’ gem then he would be committing fraud – but that has nothing to do with the intrinsic worth of the diamond. If I tried to sell someone a diamond in the place of some glass (somewhat unlikely, unless glass suddenly becomes really expensive, but nevermind) then I would be committing fraud but that wouldn’t mean that the diamond was ‘fake glass’. There appears to be some confusion between inauthentic actions – dishonest, dishonourable, deceptive – and material things. In a materialistic culture, in which people have no way to approach authenticity as a ‘spiritual’ quality, they seem to misinterpret their conscience and seek after something physically authentic.

This explains, to some extent, the dislike some people have for the artifice of cities: acres and acres of artificial landscape. The revulsion one should properly feel at inauthentic behaviour is instead, due to a failure to comprehend authenticity in the context of behaviour, directed at the works of man. ‘Inorganic’ and ‘synthetic’ are almost dirty words in some circles. Of course, some of mankind’s handiwork is revolting. Over the years, we have endured plenty of architectural disasters and other eyesores. But the point is that such things should be judged on their own merits: the fact that they were created by humans does not come into it. However, that latter fact is important for a different reason. The more we condition ourselves to find man-made environments ugly and uninspiring, the less able we become to create. To reject something because it is artificial is to reject human ingenuity and creativity. We should be celebrating our unnatural abilities, not recoiling in disgust from that which makes us great. Which is more impressive, the deliberate construction of a gem so perfect that even an expert has difficulty finding a fault, or digging up some rock and checking to see if there are any shiny bits in it?

However, this alone does not explain the feeling induced by dramatic landscapes. It is not a feeling that can be described to anyone who has not felt it and those who have felt it have no need for meagre descriptions. Anyone who has climbed a mountain and looked out from the summit, or crept through a tunnel to an underground cavern, or stood on the rim of a vast gorge, or sailed out to sea, or even just seen the night sky without light pollution, they may know what I am talking about. The best word I have to describe it is ‘openness’. It’s at moments like those that I think I understand what is meant by being open.

And this is the second difference between artifice and nature. Artifice does not induce openness. Rather, it both relies upon and causes a closing off. In order to manipulate the world according to our will we cannot open ourselves to that world, we must remain isolate as subjects exploiting objects. That is fine as far as it goes, and it does go a fair way, but it ultimately leaves us without experience of the world – as itself rather than as a resource for our constructions – or of our selves. This last fact is crucial. For it is through both artifice and openness that we come to know our selves and a disproportionate emphasis on either can only lead to self-delusion.

When we go out into the wilderness and allow the world to present itself as it is in itself, then we open ourselves to our own Being. Similarly, it is through our manipulations of the world, our artifice, that we make mirrors in which we can see our own potential Becoming.

Published in: on August 17, 2006 at 12:00 am  Comments (4)  

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4 CommentsLeave a comment

  1. The value we place on things and the kind of value we place on them, are comepletly subjective. They have nothing to do with multifarious Reality.When i climbed a mountain, the feeling was inexplicable. Like you said i felt “open” as everything was washed away from me by the new surge of experience.I hate living in suburbia, i have to move some time soon to a place where theres mountains, even if the ones in england are nothing spectacular compared to the ones, say in switzerland.But theres nothing compared to being at the peak of one. Even a small one that takes you two hours to climb, like the one in my pic.

  2. If values are entirely subjective and have nothing to do with “multifarious Reality”, then why do you prefer the peak of a mountain to suburbia? Surely, if there are no objective restraints, the sensible thing to do would be to prefer the place in which you spend most of your time?

  3. Thats absolutely true, but just because our reality has nothing to do with the reality of the earth, doesnt mean that some values are not more valuable to us or more beneficial. The universe is a cold, structureless and concept-less place, any true, and full no human contemplation on it would probably destroy you, and is anyhow impossible, since Nietzsche discovered that we “cant look around our corner” (i think that makes sense)

  4. I think the reason i cant do what your saying is because your talking of the most mature person, someone who has completed there process. Where as, just because our values are only human, someone who hasnt matured would have to make the most beneficial choices to reach that level of understanding

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