“We are each tiny parts of something enduring, something that feels solid, real, and true.” When I read a sentence like that one, from James Rebanks’s much-praised A Shepherd’s Life, I grow suspicious. What is it to claim that a place, an experience, a practice, is real? As opposed to what?
Then I grow pedantic: real as opposed to nothing, I insist. “Real” means “actual.” Brand-new suburbs are real. So are plastic trees, made-up religions, neurotic projections and hallucinations, and every page on the internet. Every last one, an actual thing. What is so specially real about sheep that descend from earlier sheep owned by your ancestors in the same place where you live now?
Of course, this kind of thinking will not get very far. Calling something real pays it a certain kind of compliment, marks it for distinction. And so, the same question again: real as distinct from what?
Well, usually as distinct from those other words that Rebanks uses: false or insincere rather than true; insubstantial rather than solid. Fair enough. But calling these qualities real raises the stakes. It draws an ontological borderline and expels to its far side everything flimsy, fleeting, disingenuous, and unconvincing. In practice, what is convincing is often what is familiar: old, well-trodden, with chthonic notes in the bouquet.
So what “feels real” will often be an object of nostalgia, and in that respect a fantasy and flight from the real present – which may feel oppressive and inspire flight precisely because it really is flimsy, fleeting, full of halfhearted work and disingenuous words. The real can be the mortal enemy of the actual, route of an attempted escape from it.
What counts as “real” in this sense will often be conservative. Collective nostalgia, in particular, is likely to seek after a golden age of real men and real women, real faith and real causes, as opposed to the shifting and hybrid genders and compromised movements and institutions that we live with in fact. But this is not always true: some trans activists insist specifically on the reality of their non-traditional genders, as opposed to the false and constraining actuality of hard binaries. Talk of reality can be revolutionary rather than conservative, abruptly recasting all that merely is as artificial and obfuscating. Marx did something similar in Capital when he invited readers to follow him into capitalism’s basement workshop, where they could envision the extraction of surplus value, which no one had ever seen or touched, but which, he argued, was more real than all the contracts and property rights of the marketplace.
“Reality” has often had affinities with “nature” and all that is “natural.” Real food is food from the earth, whose sources you can touch, whose taste you recognize, food for which your language has an old and perhaps colloquial name. Real work is work with material things, tied to the rhythms of seasons, animals, and crops. For Americans, in particular, wilderness, the most natural place, has often seemed the most real place, the place to encounter both the world and one’s self unmediated and unmodified. Never mind that the places we call wilderness are designated as such by law, and managed by federal agencies to preserve a prescribed set of “wilderness values.” Wild nature, as a paragon of reality, takes work to produce and maintain. It is unavoidably artificial.
The very idea of nature is under pressure these days, and rightly so. Scientists and humanists alike argue that the planet has entered the Anthropocene, a geological era when humans are a force, maybe the force, in the earth’s development. In this time, there is no more nature that is independent of human action: from the upper atmosphere to the chemical composition of soil to the mix of species in an age of mass extinction, our mark is everywhere. The world we find can only be the world we have made. The question cannot be, as environmentalists have often put it, how to save the world, but only what kind of world, with limited powers and foresight, to try to shape.
The Anthropocene has a brute empirical dimension, based in the great and growing human effect on the world. It also has a more theoretical dimension. The discovery that there is no more nature comes along with the insight that “nature” has always been a way for people to talk to – and about – one another. Nature has always been cultural and social. So aesthetic concepts of the beautiful and sublime have been bids for status by social groups that prized them, and attempts to vindicate experiences that were precious to them – such as scaling mountains to admire creation’s wild and dangerous place. So the Lockean idea that nature was made to fulfill human needs, if only people would clear, plant, and develop it, rationalized the displacement and expropriation of native peoples in the settler colonies of the Americas and Oceania, entering the political and religious culture of early United States and the law of Australia and New Zealand. Such opposites as monarchy and democracy, slavery and revolution, have all been celebrated as the favored principles of nature, depending who is interpreting it, and with what purposes.
Of course, these motivated interpretations of nature do not feel strategic to those who undertake them: they feel natural, sincere, real. Nature has always stood for what comes before politics and culture, is not susceptible to their judgments, and so sets their limits. In this way, talking about the principles of nature has been a self-concealing mode of cultural politics, a politics premised on denying – with a pure heart – that it is a politics at all.
Followed through, embracing the Anthropocene would mean giving up this unearned purity of heart, and surrendering the happy protest, “It’s just natural!” It would mean embracing the necessary artificiality of every version of the “nature” that is a joint product of human activity and the rest of the world. That would require finding new and clearer ways of talking about what is precious in the forms of halfway artificiality that have been called natural.
The same goes for the real.
In a rare interview earlier this year, the reclusive Italian novelist Elena Ferrante told the Paris Review that sincerity and accuracy, the hallmarks of the real, ironically falsify writing that relies on them. She said,
“The most urgent question for a writer may seem to be, What experiences do I have as my material, what experiences do I feel able to narrate? But that’s not right. The more pressing question is, What is the word, what is the rhythm of the sentence, what tone best suits the things I know? … It’s not enough to say, as we increasingly do, These events truly happened, it’s my real life, the names are the real ones, I’m describing the real places where the events occurred. If the writing is inadequate, it can falsify the most honest biographical truths. Literary truth is not the truth of the biographer or the reporter, it’s not a police report or a sentence handed down by a court. It’s not even the plausibility of a well-constructed narrative. Literary truth is entirely a matter of wording and is directly proportional to the energy that one is able to impress on the sentence. And when it works, there is no stereotype or cliché of popular literature that resists it. It reanimates, revives, subjects everything to its needs.”
Understood this way, the real is the antidote to a banal literary and aesthetic realism that amounts to literalism – the kind of storytelling that wants you to know it really happened. Making literary reality is not unlike making Anthropocene landscapes: only the materials and certain formal constraints are given, and the goal is an aesthetic excellence that stems from self-consciousness about what experience one is trying to produce, and how the materials and craft can sustain or undermine those.
This way of praising the real leaves room to doubt it where it doesn’t belong or its use is, as Ferrante puts it, falsifying. For instance, in American constitutional law, the “originalists” who insist that the constitution’s phrases must mean today what they meant in 1789 are engaged in an aesthetic interpretive exercise that falsifies the nature of legality. Justices such as Antonin Scalia gather scraps of old legal text and dictionary definitions, assemble them in the soft light of claims about the ethos of the American Revolution, and conclude, with an air of inevitability, that the constitution guarantees the right to own a gun, or contains no right to abortion or same-sex marriage. When it is done well, the effect can be exhilarating: total persuasion! The judge opens his hands, palms out to show that they are empty and innocent. Reality made me do it!
The originalist’s achievement mystifies the ways that law should be transparently artificial. It makes a world that was not there before, by forming rules – such as liberty and equality – that are pure human creations. It makes a dwelling-place, as surely as civil engineers make a city. Its power should be lucid and open, hence potentially democratic, or at least open to criticism at every point. Concealing its world-creating work by cloaking it in an old “reality” mystifies the workings of power. Even when the execution is impressive, the response should not be admiration.
Recognizing reality as an aesthetic achievement can also liberate world-making as a form of play. Think again of nature and its landscapes. Recognizing that they are doubly artificial – made or preserved by human power and interpreted in human experience – need not leave them flattened and lifeless. The suspicion that this is so, that new and palpably artificial landscapes offer nothing, is what drives people back to familiar kinds of “real” places, places with sheep and cottages and old paths. But creating and interpreting those is a way of inventing the real, not finding it! And so, with that in mind, we should be able to invent it elsewhere, and in other ways.
A week in the Peloponnesian countryside recently showed me something about how landscapes, stories, and the mind can play together. I thought all the time of the gods and spirits that were supposed to have animated the peaks, forests, and streams. The history of the place invited these thoughts, of course, but so did its shape.
The instinct that gods live in high came alive in a terrain with steep slopes that open up into broad terraces and generous mountaintops, level meadows shaped for revels. Why would there not be a life up there, inaccessible but imaginable?
It is a place of intense microclimates. A slot canyon rips a lush, dusky line into an arid mountainside. Surrounded by dry pines, backed against a thousand-foot cliff, a vertical stream throws out a fan of hanging grasses, then comes to ground at the roots of big, gnarled figs and planetrees (also called sycamore maples). It reminded me of Northern California, and also of the Banias, a river cleft at the base of the Golan Heights in northern Israel, named by Roman occupiers for Pan. In the spring, cold, blue-tinted meltwater races through a green, heavily shadowed rent in a near-desert baked in gold Mediterranean light. Where a blade of that gold slices between wood and leaves and strikes the water, two worlds meet.
This kind of anomaly is a place for spirits. It’s a product of a place vitally unlike itself, always generating its own exceptions and inviting imagination in its interstices. It’s a home for something of the place yet not entirely of the world – a dryad, say, or river spirit.
In the modern west, the aesthetics of landscape generally comes down to two categories. One is beauty, the quality of a restful and regular place – a lovely farming landscape, for instance. The other is sublimity, the half-frightening, half-elevating power of huge, alien nature: a volcano, a whirlpool, the ocean in a storm, lightning in the Sierra Nevada. Both beauty and sublimity have been traditionally figured as emanations of the real, emblems of a unified and given world, the product of monotheistic creation.
The animated landscapes I’m describing fall into a third aesthetic category: the uncanny, the place we aren’t sure what to make of, which may or may be looking back at us with eyes like but also unlike ours.
These are the landscapes of the strange familiar, where we recognize ourselves but are also frightened and baffled. They are inhabited, personal, vital, and alien, all at once. Animist, pagan places, they have a variegated vitality that fills me as I race and stumble across them, trying to reach the next strange grove. That is, they invite play more than reverence, and the reverence they elicit is only one of their moods, another form of play. In them, the mind plays tricks on itself by invitations – some serious tricks, some not so serious.
I would welcome a world where such experience is more common. This does not mean returning to the real, but it does not mean rejecting it, either. It means learning the safe ways to have dangerous play with it.